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APA looks at three notable Asian films screened at this year's festival: The Sea Wall, Painted Skin, and Mumbai Meri Jaan.
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Charlyne Yi's latest film Paper Heart gives mainstream America a chance to fall in love with Yi's sense of humor -- a emotional roller coaster ride that keeps us guessing.
Charlyne Yi, the cute-as-a-button comedian known for her black frames, disheveled hair, indifferent slouch and wide-eyed facial expressions, has been gaining more and more exposure since her quick but memorable turn as Seth Rogan's stoner friend in Knocked Up. Before that, Yi made a name for herself on the Los Angeles comedy circuit, where her "Charlyne Yi Music Box" ensemble comedy shows at the Upright Citizen's Brigade are regular crowd-pleasers. From there, she gained a loyal following from her videos on her MySpace and YouTube sites, including a "Man on the Street" skit, a mock-SNL audition dedicated to Fred Armisen, an Amelie impression, and sweet selections of her self-admitted "super cheesy" music.
Most recently, she's sent rabid Michael Cera fans into a nonsensically jealous rage with the "are-they-or-are-they-not-dating?" questions hinted in her latest film, Paper Heart. Directed by Nick Jasenovec, Paper Heart is a hybrid documentary starring Charlyne Yi as herself, a young girl who doesn't believe in love. The team travels across the country, as Yi interviews couples about their love lives, trying to gain newfound insight about relationships. Although the original goal was to make a straight documentary, Jasenovec soon realized he needed the film's Charlyne Yi character to undergo some sort of transformation in order to tell the story he wanted to tell. Because he couldn't guarantee this character arc in real life, they decided to mix fiction with reality: casting an actor, Jake Johnson, to play the Nick Jasenovec director character, who asks Charlyne Yi to explore her "real-life relationship" with Michael Cera. Does Michael Cera help Charlyne Yi fall in love? Only the art of puppetry can help us discover the real story.
APA speaks with Charlyne Yi about Paper Heart, her unpredictable stand-up routines, and the difficulties of making biceps out of cotton balls. --Ada Tseng
April 30, 2009
Interviewed by Janice Jann and Ada Tseng
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
Interview with Charlyne Yi
July 27, 2009
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Asia Pacific Arts: When did you first realize you were funny?
Charlyne Yi: I'm not even sure that I am funny. I think sometimes what I do isn't funny. And sometimes what I do that's funny is only funny to me. Like, I'll play the clarinet really bad, and I'll bow and hope that because the audience feels bad for me, they'll laugh. And then when they do, that's funny to me. Then I'll say, "If you love that, then you'll love this song!" And I'll play another song because they felt sorry for me. [laughs] I'm not sure. Sometimes I just do things for myself.
When I first tried stand-up, I was really bad at it. I would try to work the microphone, but I didn't know how to make it taller. And when I pulled it, it hit me in the mouth, and everyone was laughing at me and how uncomfortable I was. So I realized this might be something to work with -- the reality of how people perceive you and making them uncomfortable, I guess.
APA: Did you start out with awkward humor, or is that something that you explored further after realizing people were laughing at it?
CY: I think it's somewhat incidental. I knew I wanted to try bad jokes. Like, I have this bad joke: it's a one-liner that's really really bad, and I know it's bad, but I like it cause it makes the audience groan sometimes. It's like, "My mom is soo old." And they go, "How old is she?" And I say, "She's 42! And she'll be 43 in November!" [laughs] It's not a very good joke, but it's funny to hear the audience go, Oh... [deflated laughter]. I don't think all my humor is awkward, or designed to make people groan, but I like to throw that out there and experiment with different emotions.
APA: How would you describe your humor?
CY: I don't know. I think I try to challenge myself. If I think I'm doing too much awkward humor, I'll try doing one-liners. I like variety. Like, I'll do The Dating Game with an audience member, and I'll have all these random people onstage, and we'll play the Dating Game show, and it's interactive. I try to do things that incorporate the audience from time to time, where they can play along. So I'll have a bachelor, and he's blindfolded, and there are three bachelorettes. And then we'll go through all the questions, but then I'll go,"And the winner is...." and push all the bachelorettes off stage, un-blindfold the guy, and say "And the winner is.. ME!" And then we go on a date onstage, and it kind of turns into this adventure where he has to play along with me onstage. And there's a part where I die and I give him the sword, and he has to go chase bad guys. [laughs]
APA: It sounds so random, but hilarious because it keeps people intrigued. They have to go with the flow.
CY: Yeah, like sometimes I'll do a joke, and then I'll do a completely sincere song. And then after that, I'll follow it up with a song that seems sincere but then I'll have a nervous breakdown in the middle of it. So after the first song, they'll be like, "Oh, it's kind of good!" and then the second song, they'll be like, "Oh my God, is she okay?" [laughs] I like to keep people guessing.
APA: Because Paper Heart is half-documentary, half-fiction, you're never really sure what is real and what is not. I'm wondering, do you think that ambiguity translates to your stand-up? When you're onstage, are you also creating a half-fictitious persona?
CY: Yeah, I think it's similar. Me and Nick were talking about it, and the movie is almost like one big Charlyne Yi show, where you're not sure what's real or not. I also think sometimes my stage persona is a lot dumber than I am in real life. [laughs] But I think there's a good mix. When I'm playing music, sometimes it's totally me and sometimes it's not. I like the idea of the audience being unsure. It brings a different reaction out of them, whether it's an embarrassed laugh or a genuine laugh. I once showed a video of my family at a show, and it was sincere -- I made it for Christmas -- and then some people suddenly started crying because they thought it was such a sweet video. And I thought, that's cool to get people to feel certain emotions that you wouldn't expect to get released during your show.
APA: There's so much comedy to be found in love and relationships, whether it's in romantic comedies or other genres. What do you think makes love so ripe for humor?
CY: I don't know. I think that when people are in love, they act differently. They act goofy. You'll see the baddest, toughest guy, and when you see him in love, he's all goofy and saying things that he normally wouldn't say. For some reason, whenever there's a saxophone in music, it's all sexy and stuff, and for some reason, a love ballad can be so funny even though it's sincere.
APA: I loved the puppetry in Paper Heart, and I read in an interview that you've been doing puppetry since you were young. What kind of look did you want for the puppets in Paper Heart?
CY: They weren't very detailed. I tried a bunch of different versions of the puppets, and I think the more detailed it was, the more creepy it looked, so I tried to make it simple. I think sometimes little says more. The more realistic versions were really uncomfortable to look at. [laughs]
APA: What kind of materials did you use?
CY: I went back home and got paper bags and googly eyes. The puppets were made out of Trader Joes paper bags, wire, cardboard, paint, and material for the clothes. It was weird going into the store and thinking about what your puppet's clothes were going to look like. I felt like such a crazy person, building puppets. For some reason, they took me forever to make, maybe because I made so many failed versions. The last puppet, the one where I have muscles, took me forever to sew up. [laughs] I stuffed cotton in the arms, and it was weird sewing creases to make it look like a bicep. And then when I was making Michael [Cera's puppet], I tried to make him flimsy, because when he's spinning in slow motion, I wanted his legs to just sort of flop over. This just shows how much thought went into these little puppets. People think, "Oh it's just paper and wire," which they are, but it took me forever. [laughs] I think I spent a week and a half locked in my room, and Nick would check up on me from time to time. I was a mess.
APA: Of course it would take a lot of effort to make all the puppets! There are so many choices to make.
CY: Yeah, even thinking about the color schemes of the locations, it'd be like, "Okay this takes place where the snow will be white, but the color scheme will be blue and red." It kind of drove me insane. I was so meticulous, but I don't even think anyone will notice the color schemes. For the rain, we used tinsel and sprinkled it in front of the lens. We tried using real water, because we were thinking, "What if we use real elements? What if the fire was real or if the water was real?" But the water didn't really capture on camera. [laughs]
APA: You have such an endearing laugh. Have you always laughed like that?
CY: I think the laugh is new! I think a few years ago, when I was doing Knocked Up, my laugh was lower, and it sounded like a man. Everyone would make fun of me; it was sort of like [low-pitched] hohoho [sound]. And now, it's like this crazy cackle. It's scary. When it's abrupt, I'll be like, "Oh no, I'm being too loud with my cackling." I think at one point when I was young, I had this weird hyperventilating laugh -- [she demonstrates]. It was a really geeky laugh.
APA: Last question, in honor of Paper Heart, do you have a favorite love song?
Click here for the Paper Heart official website.
Date Posted: 7/31/2009